Excerpt from Big Coal by Jeff Goodell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

By Jeff Goodell

Big Coal
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2006,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2007,
    352 pages.

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I didn’t know that. Later, I would find out that his calculations were wildly exaggerated. But his larger point about the interconnectedness of the dirty life of the mines and the sparkly pixels on my computer screen was correct. What Raney was really saying to me, I understood later, was this: You use a computer. You have lights in your house. You watch TV. You are implicated in all of this.

We all are.

I spent three years researching and writing this book. I visited coal mines and power plants in ten states, as well as in China. I rode coal trains across the Great Plains, detonated 55,000 pounds of explosives in Wyoming, and spent a month on a research vessel in the North Atlantic with scientists who were studying climate change. As it turned out, the three years I spent on this book were three of the four hottest years on record. When I started my research, an energy industry consultant joked with me that a ferocious hurricane would have to wipe out New Orleans before America would wake up to the dangers of global warming. By the time I finished the book, that hurricane had arrived, although the awakening had not.

During those three years, about 3 billion tons of coal went up in smoke in America. They created light and heat for much of the nation (not to mention the glow on my computer screen even now as I write). But during those years, the American Lung Association calculates, about 72,000 people in the United States died prematurely from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution—more than from AIDS, murder, or drug overdose.

Obviously, there’s no free power lunch: nukes can melt down, dams flood valleys, and wind turbines kill birds. Building the modern world is fraught with tradeoffs. But unlike in China or India, it’s hard to argue that by burning coal to create electricity, America is lifting millions out of poverty and introducing them to hot showers and cold Cokes. Our affection for coal is essentially an old habit and an indulgence. At best, it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem. And the price of this indulgence may be higher than any economist can calculate. Wally Broecker, the great climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has compared the earth’s climate to a dragon: when you poke it, you can never be sure how it’s going to react. As Broecker says, “We’re playing with the whole planet, dammit, just to get energy for a few hundred years.”

Working on this book, I came to understand that when we talk about energy, what we are really talking about is how we live and what we value. Are we willing to put the earth’s climate at risk to save ten bucks on our utility bills? To what degree do we want energy corporations to control our access to power? Is it more important to protect yesterday’s jobs or to create a new industry for tomorrow? What degree of sacrifice are we willing to make in our lifestyles to ensure the well-being of our children and grandchildren? The coal industry, of course, would rather keep the conversation focused on the price of electricity per kilowatt-hour and the stockholders’ return on investment. Coal is a commodity business, after all, one that is run mostly by number crunchers who see the world as a spreadsheet to conquer. Questions about the price of progress, and how we draw the line between what is acceptable to us as a rich, modern society and what is not, do not fit easily into these calculations.

This problem is as old as our love affair with coal. In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair gave many Americans their first view of the miraculous dynamos that turned coal into clean, bright incandescent light. Among the fair’s 23 million visitors was Henry Adams, a well-traveled writer and historian from a prominent Massachusetts family. (His grandfather and great- grandfather were both presidents, and his brother ran the Union Pacific railroad.) For Adams, the sight of the coal-fired dynamos was a sign that American life was about to change irrevocably. He felt the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. And it frightened him. As Adams put it, “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.”

Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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